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When Will In-Person Watch Fairs Be Back?

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Each year Lane Schiffman, who lives in Greensboro, NC and co-owns a handful of high-quality watch and jewelry stores, including Shreve & Co., typically spends a few weeks in Switzerland attending trade shows that have been the anchors of the watch industry Decades.

But for Watches and Wonders Geneva, the virtual fair that hosts 38 brands and starts on April 7th, he’ll be sitting at a friend’s house and watching each company reveal their latest timepieces on a computer screen.

Mr Schiffman said he would miss having new watches in hand and being in personal contact with colleagues. However, it is realistic about the current restrictions on physical gatherings. “It’s not something we can do, so Plan B is the next best thing and Plan B is to do things virtually,” he said.

Sure, the online presentations this year met a pandemic-inspired need, but what happens to trade shows when the restrictions on large gatherings and travel are lifted?

And, perhaps more importantly to the majority of watch fans, will brands go back to their traditional patterns, largely bypassing the online channels available to many to engage in face-to-face with the few?

Many watch industry insiders see the benefits of physical fairs, which historically take place annually in Basel and Geneva. “There is a lot more power that all brands speak at the same time,” said Frédéric Arnault, Managing Director of TAG Heuer. “It helps us all to create this mystery not just around this or that brand, but around all watch brands.”

But virtual trade fairs also have their supporters. “It has something to do with, I hate to say, sitting in your underwear and not leaving your home and watching the show,” said Adam Craniotes, editor of Revolution watch magazine and co-founder of RedBar Group, a collectors’ organization.

Watch fairs, like so many companies, were forced to recalibrate themselves by the pandemic. Experts say the restructuring in this case was overdue.

“Probably this year of Covid was useful for them to try to disrupt something that was difficult to disrupt without such an event,” said Claudia D’Arpizio, partner and head of luxury goods at business consultants Bain & Company. “Everyone has questioned the value of these fairs.”

The Swiss events were mostly held at retailers and journalists, with sparkling presentation booths that can cost millions of dollars and quirky events hosted by brands every night. At the Geneva Fair, for example, the public was only allowed access in 2017, and that access was limited to a single day.

For a number of years it had been felt that the cost and exclusivity, especially in the all-access climate of social media and websites, were out of date.

As Ms. D’Arpizio put it: “It is nonsense that all this content only lived for a week, like a butterfly.”

In the past, watch companies presented their most important annual releases at two trade shows. One of these was the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, commonly known as SIHH, which was held in Geneva in January and focused on luxury brands, primarily those from Richemont such as Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre.

The other was Baselworld, the largest watch and jewelry fair in the world by almost all standards with roots that go back more than 100 years. It took place in the spring and included both premium and cheaper timepieces, jewelry and precious stones.

Things started to change a few years ago when some brands pulled out of trade shows completely and others decided to run their own events. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton brands, such as Bulgari and Zenith, launched new watches at a group event in Dubai in 2020 and earlier this year – although many are also showing off models at Watches and Wonders this week.

Then came the pandemic. Uhr – und Wunder 2020 was digital – free display with consumer access to some content – with small physical versions last fall in Shanghai and on the Chinese island of Hainan. Baselworld 2020 has been completely canceled.

The organizers of watches and wonders in Geneva promise this year content that goes beyond the brand overview of new watches. And next week a physical version of the show is planned in Shanghai, with panels, lectures and workshops, as well as booths from 19 brands.

“We tried to transform it from an old-style professional salon into a forum that I think is more of a forum – a mix of Fashion Week and Davos and Watches and Wonders,” said Emmanuel Perrin, President of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, the non-profit organization hosting the fair. (He is also the director of specialist watchmaking sales at Richemont, which accounts for about a third of those attending the online show.)

Baselworld has announced that it is also returning, albeit in a different configuration. The fair, renamed Hour Universe, is planned as a live event in June. It is also intended to hold a digital fair later this year, although that was a promise that was promised but not fulfilled in 2019. (Some Baselworld mainstays like Patek Philippe and Rolex are planned at Watches and Wonders.)

Many brands have also chosen and invested in video equipment for use at trade shows and beyond. Chopard, for example, has installed a film studio at its Geneva headquarters that it intends to present during the fair this week.

H. Moser & Cie have set up shop in a similar studio with professional lighting and three cameras that has been used almost every day since it was set up last fall. The intent is to have a virtual presentation this week with a vacation-themed backdrop that the brand said should ease the potentially boring exercise of presenting timepieces.

“We have heard from many journalists that these presentations are generally quite stiff. That’s why we try to create a slightly different atmosphere,” said Edouard Meylan, its managing director.

Watch fans have likely had the same reaction as the following since the pandemic all but wiped out runway shows: some videos are brilliant, others just boring.

In addition to the presentation of new watches, the Montblanc watch department will have a live conversation with Reinhold Messner, the mountaineer and brand ambassador, about an expedition that helped to inspire elements of a limited edition watch.

Other brands have pre-recorded footage in dynamic locations. For example, Hermès went to Geneva’s historic Bâtiment des Forces Motrices and took away a sculpture and a digital work of art that he had commissioned. And Ulysse Nardin filmed in Bassins de Lumière, a WWII submarine base in the Bordeaux region of France, to emphasize its maritime tradition.

“There could be a zoom fatigue,” said Patrick Pruniaux, managing director of Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux. “We have to make sure we get the message across in the most exciting way.”

From a brands perspective, digital presentations help at the bottom line. Several said production costs were up to 90 percent lower than watching a physical show – a real consideration given that sales in 2020 were down 30 percent year over year, according to Bain. And the content “can live beyond the period of the Mass” to be used in other ways, said Ms. D’Arpizio.

That didn’t stop a reviewer from creating their own digital event.

“Zooming presentations as a means of running the watch industry or as a means to get business done has been a pathetic mistake,” said Ariel Adams, founder of aBlogtoWatch watch website. “That’s because these brands made absolutely no effort to go beyond, ‘Hey, we heard Zoom meetings are a thing.'”

As another option, Mr. Adams will be launching his own online exhibition called New Watch Week next month. He wants to create more engaging videos than typical brand launches. The fair will feature content on a regular basis throughout the year instead of just the first week.

Its target audience, he said, is consumers who can watch for free without the need for invitations.

This type of programming is likely to continue after the pandemic ends. Physical masses, he said, could then be resumed.

“The luxury industry requires real relationships, social opportunities, travel and partying, and consumers who want and have the money to express themselves,” said Adams.

“If these things don’t happen, there won’t be a functioning watch industry.”

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Robert Dunfee